Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 190, Issue 2, pp 105–114 | Cite as

Biological significance of distinguishing between similar colours in spectrally variable illumination: bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) as a case study

Original Paper


Individual bumblebees were trained to choose between rewarded target flowers and non-rewarded distractor flowers in a controlled illumination laboratory. Bees learnt to discriminate similar colours, but with smaller colour distances the frequency of errors increased. This indicates that pollen transfer might occur between flowers with similar colours, even if these colours are distinguishable. The effect of similar colours on reducing foraging accuracy of bees is evident for colour distances high above discrimination threshold, which explains previous field observations showing that bees do not exhibit complete flower constancy unless flower colour between species is distinct. Bees tested in spectrally different illumination conditions experienced a significant decrease in their ability to discriminate between similar colours. The extent to which this happens differs in different areas of colour space, which is consistent with a von Kries-type model of colour constancy. We find that it would be beneficial for plant species to have highly distinctive colour signals to overcome limitations on the bees performance in reliably judging differences between similar colours. An exception to this finding was flowers that varied in shape, in which case bees used this cue to compensate for inaccuracies of colour vision.


Colour constancy Colour vision Evolution Flowers Insect vision 



We are grateful to F. Bock, A. Dornhaus and J. Spaethe for their assistance with various aspects of the study. We thank M. Giurfa, L.L. Muir, W.R.A. Muntz and an anonymous referee for their comments on the manuscript. A.G. Dyer is grateful for support from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zoologie II, BiozentrumUniversität WürzburgWürzburgGermany
  2. 2.School of Biological Sciences, Queen Mary CollegeUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  3. 3.School of Orthoptics, Faculty of Health SciencesLa Trobe UniversityBundooraAustralia

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